September 4th marks the debut of the Brian Kelly era in South Bend. For the fourth time since 1997 Notre Dame has a new coach, and, once again, Irish fans are wondering if he can lead them back to prominence and succeed where his three predecessors failed.
To be certain, Kelly brings with him many attributes absent from the three previous coaches. He has college football head coaching experience, and lots of it. He’s had success at each of his three previous stops—elevating the programs at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan, and Cincinnati above any level in their history. And he’s progressed—rather naturally—from FCS, to the Mid-American conference in FBS, and finally to the Big East. It is these qualifications that have many fans excited about Kelly’s potential at Notre Dame, as well as the impending season.
But does immediate improvement in the win column mean athletic director Jack Swarbrick found his man? Does meeting, or exceeding, fans’ expectations of a 9-3 season in year one guarantee long-term success?
No. And a cursory look at the last two Irish coaches will tell you that. Tyrone Willingham went 10-3 in his first year before suffering through an 11-12 record the next two. Charlie Weis compiled the same opening year record in 2005, and even improved by a win in 2006, but subsequently faltered down the stretch winning only 16 of 37.
Wins and losses early in a coach’s tenure can be deceiving, and the real measure of success is in improvement and consistency over a period of time—it is far more instructive to measure Kelly’s inaugural season in terms of the overall direction of the program rather than in wins and losses.
To this end, the staff at Clashmore Mike sat down to answer a simple question regarding the offense, defense and coaching: What are you looking for in 2010 that shows marked improvement in the direction of the program?
A run game. And by that I’m not talking so much about an offense that piles up rushing yards, but rather one that is consistent and successful when they do run. Not a single Weis team managed to average greater than four yards per carry, while only one Kelly team in the past six years has failed to do so. Despite Kelly’s air-it-out offense, he’s generally been able to establish the run wherever he’s been, and one of the keys to Cincinnati’s undefeated 2009 regular season was a quick-strike running game that had the 13th highest yard per carry average in the nation. The deepest position on the Notre Dame roster is at running back: the talent is there if the offensive line can open up holes for them. Once we start seeing 20-plus yard runs out of this offense, then I’ll know we’re heading in the right direction.
There are no more important two items to offensive success this year than offensive line protection and the establishment of an effective ground game. That being said, another area that I hope to observe progress in 2010 is at the quarterback position. Quarterback Dayne Crist will play a substantially different role than his predecessor—Jimmy Clausen was charged with making decisions on the field and generating much of the offensive firepower himself—acting as a distributor to the skill positions in the offensive unit. It is vitally important to Notre Dame’s success in 2010 that he appears comfortable, not only in Kelly’s system, but moving around in the pocket and executing his role with confidence. If Crist is consistently relied upon to win games in much the same role as Clausen, Irish fans could be in for a long season.
It seems like ages since Notre Dame fielded a competent offensive line. College football starts up front and Weis put far too much emphasis on skill position play and not enough on the front five. This is particularly important in 2010, the Irish face several strong defensive fronts including Purdue, Pittsburgh, Utah and USC, and winning the battles in the trenches will be paramount to success. Offensive line coach Ed Warinner has talent to work with, but recently technique and fundamentals have been lacking. There is experience and skill at the wide receiver, running back and tight end positions, and Kelly has a history of developing very productive quarterbacks. If Warinner can instill better footwork, correct hand placement, and (perhaps most importantly) produce more physicality, the Irish could field a very prolific offense.
While the running game will be key to Kelly’s new offense, and Dayne Crist will have a big load on his shoulders this season, my colleagues already touched on those topics. Therefore, the biggest thing that I would love to see this season on offense is a competent passing game that starts with production at wide receiver. Biletnikoff Award contender Michael Floyd is still playing for the Irish, but the other wide receivers are largely untested. Deion Walker and John Goodman were wide receivers who were praised while in high school, but have been buried on the depth chart the past few seasons—largely because of the production of Floyd and Golden Tate. Another promising receiver, although one that was a work-in-progress, Shaquelle Evans, left the team because he was unhappy about his place on the depth chart. Then there are other receivers like Roby Toma, Theo Riddick, and some of the incoming freshmen who remain a mystery. The other x-factor for the unit is Duval Kamara. Was his freshman year a fluke? If he can have a Maurice Stovall-type season, he could redeem his lackluster sophomore and junior seasons. Because defenses will be keying in on Floyd and Kyle Rudolph, who is actually one of the top receiving tight ends in the country, the offense desperately needs other receivers to increase their production in order help Crist as well as open up the running game.
I’m looking at you, Harrison Smith. Kyle McCarthy isn’t there to bail you out this year, so stop grabbing at people with your hands and finally run into someone with your body. A lack of tackling ability was a defense-wide issue, but Smith stood out like a sore thumb time and time again in nearly every game. If Kelly and his staff can fix his fundamentals, they should be able to fix anyone’s. Second, I’m looking for pressure in the backfield. How many of Jon Tenuta’s blitzes hit the other team’s offensive line like they ran into a brick wall? As Notre Dame fans have painfully learned, you can only do so much to manufacture pressure from designed blitzes; the rest needs to come from good technique, strength and speed. It’s been a long time since I’ve looked at an Irish defense and felt that they were the physically superior group of players on the field. When I start seeing the other team’s offensive line get pushed around, and I see players dropped with hard-hitting form tackles, then I’ll know we’re ok.
Coverage. The Irish have been so poor in many defensive areas over the last few years that it’s tough to pinpoint a specific unit that needs improvement the most, but one thing Notre Dame must do this season is keep their opponents’ big play production in check by providing sound coverage in the secondary. This can’t come at the expense of solid run tackling, but all too often Irish fans have been subjected to daggers through the heart by a poorly timed fade pass defended, or a blown assignment. These types of fundamental errors cannot be allowed to happen and defensive backs coach Chuck Martin will have his hands full focusing on removing the potential for huge shifts in momentum as a result of poor secondary play.
Similar to the offense, there is plenty of talent currently on the Irish roster to field a defense in the top quarter of the country. The Irish have athletes—Darius Fleming, Manti Te’o, Steve Filer, Ethan Johnson, Gary Gray, and Jamoris Slaughter to name a few—but the raw skill hasn’t translated into production because of poor fundamentals. In other words, progress on this side of the ball is directly proportional to improving the basics. Better tackling, correct pursuit angles, and an increased ability to shed blocks are desperately needed to maximize the potential of the personnel. If the Irish can make progress in these areas, the athleticism should take care of the rest.
Fundamentals seems to be a prevalent topic, here, but solid execution of the fundamentals seem to get more sporadic throughout the season without the proper conditioning. I’m afraid that, because Kelly’s offense is designed to score quickly and often, the increased work load on the defense may begin to take its toll as the season winds on. While Paul Longo has the Irish putting up some impressive bench and squat numbers, the real key to the game for the defense will be endurance. If the defense can keep from losing steam as the season wears on, they will put the Irish in a good position to win. However, if they can’t maintain their endurance, they will put that much more pressure on Crist and the offense to dig the Irish out of preventable situations, a prevalent theme throughout Weis’ final three seasons.
I want a killer instinct. What I want to see is how we play against teams with less talent than Notre Dame: do we play paddy-cake with them, or do we bury them? Do we struggle to beat the San Diego States or do we enter half-time with a 40-0 lead? The elite teams close out games against inferior opponents early and often, and Notre Dame has not been able to do that on a consistent basis since Lou Holtz left. Part of being an intimidating team and having a psychological edge before a game even starts is to make opponents worried. Squeaking out victories doesn’t do it, you have to have a reputation for dismantling and demoralizing teams. It’s part of college football, and it’s part of being an elite program. You don’t take your foot off the gas pedal until the game is over, Charlie. Your team won’t learn to close people out and you send the message that you take it easy on your opponents. I think we’ll be OK if we start seeing Notre Dame handling itself like an intimidating and elite program once again.
What I have been dying to see for more than a decade is a return to classic Irish football. The same Notre Dame that popularized the forward pass has always had a distinct, smashmouth brand of play that every successful Irish unit has embraced. It involves a bedrock of tradition, an appreciation of excellence, and an approach to playing this glorious game that begins with the fundamentals: tackling, perseverance, grit, energy, emotion, determination, and a fighting spirit. It means playing for “Our Lady” instead of the individual and for each player and staff member to personalize that credo for themselves. It appears that Kelly “gets it”—I hope this is reflected in the squad he leads out of the tunnel this Fall.
Holtz always fielded teams with several trademark characteristics—they were physical, energetic and emotional, well-conditioned, and almost never started a game flat. Lately, this has seemed more like the exception than the rule. If Kelly can transform the lethargic (pre-game smack-talking notwithstanding), finesse team with a penchant for slow starts he inherited into a unit more closely resembling those of the Holtzian Era, he will certainly be on the right path. Additionally, better conditioning is needed to reverse the second-half season skids of the past two years. These items should be priority number one for the new Irish head coach, as developing the proper team psyche in the early going is paramount to long-term success.
While Notre Dame has the talent to compete with nearly any program in the nation, a large portion of it is untested. Given the fact that Kelly’s style of offense will put added pressure on the defense, it will be imperative that conditioning is a high priority. However, the bigger issue for the Irish, and one that falls directly on the coaches, is the need to employ a fresh rotation of players throughout a game. The depth at some positions is thin, but depth will be paramount to success this season. Finding quality players to fill in behind the starters at the quarterback, wide receiver, offensive line, defensive line, middle linebacker, and cornerback positions is key to ensure that if something disastrous happens—you know, like Dayne Crist pulls a Ron Powlus and snaps his collarbone—it won’t be an excuse to throw in the towel. A significant drop-off in production and mental competency from the first to second team is just the thing to shoot an arrow in the Achilles Heel of the season.
Trends and Outliers
The predominant themes that resonate above are a focus on fundamentals and a return to the Notre Dame of old. No one is advocating for Kelly to abandon his spread offense in favor of two tight ends and an I-backfield, but the teams Holtz coached certainly had characteristics that have been lacking over the past several years. Getting those back will indicate a marked improvement in the underlying contributors to success.
Fundamentals, physicality, a running game, a defense that doesn’t give up big plays, smashmouth football—these are all items synonymous with a Holtz brand of football as well as other Irish squads that excelled, and perhaps even overachieved, on the field. There are plenty of players that will be pivotal to success this year, but if Kelly can get the team to buy into his mantra, play with passion and physicality, and focus on the details, the talent will take care of the rest.
- 2010 Season Predictions Survey
- Here Come the Irish 2010
- 670 the Score Radio Interview Audio and Reflections
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